By: Mike Still (@mikestill94)
Feature photo by: Kadeem Thomas
The Manitoba Bisons linebacking corps will be enhanced in 2019 thanks to the addition of Whitby, ON native Andrew Smith.
The 5’8”, 220-pound wrecking machine comes to Manitoba with quite the resume already in his football career. He was a standout on both sides of the ball from grades 9-11 with the Donald A. Wilson Gators, including scoring five rushing touchdowns in the Lake Ontario Secondary School Athletics (LOSSA) Tier 1 championship game. He was honoured at game’s end as both the contest and overall league MVP.
But that was just the start for Smith. Shortly after his junior year in 2012, he received an email from IMG Academy, a boarding school in Bradenton, Florida that offers an integrated academic and college preparatory experience across eight sports – one of which is football. The academy has produced 140 NCAA Division 1 commits since its inaugural season in 2013 – the year Smith was on the team – and is widely regarded as having one of the nation’s best high school football facilities.
“They kind of reached out to me and said ‘this is IMG Academy,’ and at my first my dad and I were like wait, what the heck is this, is this a joke,” Smith says.
“So then we were looking and up and were like oh my God, this is legit.”
The timing couldn’t have been better, as Donald A Wilson was in the middle of a strike and the football program was likely going to be cancelled for Smith’s senior year. So instead of waiting for the bad news, he packed up and headed to IMG for the second semester of his grade 11 year in order to be better accustomed to his surroundings.
The academy’s inaugural coach was former Heisman Trophy winner and NFL pivot Chris Weinke and the athletes came from all over the world, including England and Mexico. Smith was also joined by a fellow Canadian, in Vanier Cup-winning quarterback Michael O’Connor.
“I loved bugging him. He’s a great guy,” Smith says of his former teammate. “I was kind of hoping we have him on the map this year, because I always used to have to stop before hitting him in practice.”
The daily grind for Smith was different than what he was used to, as athletes went to school from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and then spent the entire afternoon and early evening studying and practicing only football. Schedule-wise, the team played a minimum of ten games against some of the top teams in the country.
Arguably the biggest adjustment Smith had to make in his lone season at IMG revolved around his position. He was originally brought in to play running back, however just before camp started, the squad got a new addition: current Seattle Seahawks running back Bo Scarbrough. His recruitment put Smith’s chances of seeing action in the backfield in doubt, so the team’s defensive coordinator came to him and told him he’d be switched to linebacker, in order to get field time.
Smith jumped at the idea, putting 20 pounds of muscle onto his then 180-pound frame and went to work. He was all over the place for IMG, leading the team in tackles while also being named to the All-State team. He was also named the team’s defensive MVP.
“It was an awesome experience,” he says of his time in Florida. “The facilities were unreal. It beats some of the D1 schools honestly – especially now. Now it’s unbelievable but even back then it was eye-opening.”
Once Smith was done in school, he had to decide if he wanted to come back home for university or stay in the states. He chose the former, committing to the StFX X-Men for the 2014 season.
“Just because we were a first-year program, it almost felt like scouts didn’t know enough about it. Don’t get me wrong, we’d have a bunch of top D1 schools coming to our practices and everything which is awesome to see, but I don’t think a lot of the kids got the looks they wanted,” he says.
“I would have loved to go to a D1 school, but I didn’t get the looks that I actually wanted. I didn’t want to settle for something that I’m not happy with when I could go to Canada and be closer to home. It was also cheaper money-wise.”
Smith inserted himself into the lineup immediately at StFX, finishing the year with 28 tackles, a sack, two interceptions and two forced fumbles. He wasn’t enjoying himself as a student however and opted to re-evaluated his options, sitting out the 2015 season due to transfer rules.
He then spent the following two years with the York Lions in the OUA, where he started every game and was second on the team in tackles both seasons, with 79 total. He also received the squad’s inaugural Academic Grit Award for study hall excellence.
There were some coaching changes after the 2017 season though, and Smith decided it would be best to finish out his final two years at a different school.
Cue Manitoba. The Bisons staff already had a York connection, as special teams coordinator/running backs coach Ryan Karhut was on staff while Smith was there. The two formed a great bond and this led to Smith taking a visit to campus in November, committing shortly afterwards.
“I’m a huge fan [of Smith],” says Karhut. “He’s a great kid and a legit playmaker at the linebacker spot.”
The hulking member of the front seven is already enrolled on campus, with the hopes of finishing his environmental studies degree and also being named an All-Canadian. On the field, his goal is much simpler.
“First, I just want to make a statement. I want to come in, do what I can do and work hard.”